Co-operatives, Work, and the Digital Economy surveys recent literature on the formation of co-operatives as a strategy to improve work and livelihoods in the digital economy. The report is guided by questions such as: What groups of workers have turned to the co-operative model in the digital economy? Do co-operatives have the capacity to mitigate precarity, deepen worker engagement, and combat inequality in the gig economy and digital creative industries? If co-ops are a promising means to improve livelihoods and democratize work, what are the obstacles to increasing their uptake? And what initiatives and policies have been advanced to foster supportive co-operative infrastructure in the digital age?
A hybrid co-op primer and research report, Sharing Like We Mean It: Working Co-operatively in the Cultural and Tech Sectors is based on a survey of more than 100 co-operatives in Canada, the UK, and the US. It offers a snapshot of the co-op landscape in creative industries, explores what co-operative work can look like in practice, and features profiles of several worker co-ops. Our survey results confirm that the co-operative model is a promising strategy for mitigating individualized patterns of work, democratizing work relationships, and providing satisfying work in creative industries contexts.
Co-ops have the potential to offer greater control over production and distribution of creative products, exactly the sort of control that many creatives want, but are told is only available to them as ‘entrepreneurs.’ They also have structural features that lead to them being better able to deliver autonomy to creatives, whilst at the same time delivering greater equality – economic and cultural - than that typically found in non-co-operative businesses. We want to challenge the dominance of the competitive, entrepreneurial model that has been central to both business support and educational provision for the creative industries, and argue that the skills of collaboration and co-operation are equally vital.
Rather than surrender it to private business or dismiss it as a shill of neoliberal exploitation, coworking is better grasped as contested: it assists growing numbers of independent workers in navigating precarious employment. The question is whether coworking spaces can do double-duty, or, help sustain livelihoods and advance economic alternatives. One path to push back against coworking’s capture by corporate capital and to move beyond the pressures of individualisation on coworking members is co-operativism.
Drawing on interviews with worker co-operatives in the UK cultural industries, Sandoval teases out the politics of working in co-ops, and shows that, although the kinds of co-ops she is discussing tend to operate at the small-scale prefigurative level, they help open up the political spaces on which bigger political action can build - although this undoubtedly requires making connections both between individual co-ops and between co-ops and the wider left. Her conclusion is that different times require different tactics, and that, though Luxemburg would not have seen much value in co-ops solely as a form of prefigurative politics, she would have valued them if they could at the same time contribute to advancing the greater goal of building a radical alternative.
A key concept in cultural labour studies is autonomy. We seek to widen and politicize the concept of autonomy to include cultural workers’ efforts to collectively exert control over the terms under which their labour power is engaged, to question the dominant organization of cultural production, to seek ways to sustain independent work by de-linking social security from standard employment, and to produce alternative systems of meaning about work. We propose three conceptual lenses for approaching research on cultural labour from worker resistance: mutual aid, or developing bottom-up infrastructures to support independent work; policy from below, or creating worker-centred policies to mitigate the precarity of non-standard work; and counter-interpellation, or building alternate vocabularies to define cultural labour that resist dominant ideological codes attached to visions of ‘creatives’ and ‘free agents’.